September 15, 2014

Commentary | January 27, 2014
The potential of food banks
A glimpse of a food revolution
Written by | Visual by Kristian Picon

Food banks are places where surplus food is donated, mostly from supermarkets, and then redistributed to those who need it. While many people volunteer at food banks out of a desire to help the poor, an article in the Tyee titled “The problem with food banks” argued that food banks are ineffective in addressing society’s problems in the long run, so people’s energy would be better spent advocating for a better welfare system.

In 1998, Janet Poppendieck wrote along the same lines, arguing that food banks came about as a symptom of a failing welfare state and that they take the responsibility of ending hunger away from the government. To Poppendieck, food banks are like a doctor with only a first aid kit: sometimes band-aids just aren’t enough for an ailing society.

Even this argument isn’t new. In Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, he famously argued that “the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.” In other words, charity does not help the poor, it merely preserves the status quo, making sure that the root of society’s problems are not addressed. Wilde was likely thinking of the Dickensian soup kitchens that proliferated throughout London’s East End at the time, where thousands lined up to receive a bowl of soup every day.

Food banks have the potential to be revolutionary places where those most affected by society’s problems gather and find ways to fight against them.

To Wilde, the alternative to these band-aid remedies is socialism: going to the root of the problem and restructuring society so that poverty and hunger are no longer possible. To Poppendieck, the alternative is to reinstitute welfare, strengthening the social safety nets of a society that has become more and more unequal. These sentiments of moving from private property to collectivism, from charity to solidarity, are central to leftist ideology. Along with this line of thinking comes automatic disdain for hand-outs, particularly in the form of food aid.

It’s clear that food banks are problematic. Not only do they help keep a system of inequality alive without challenging it, but they also rely on the very system that is killing many people slowly: industrialized and highly processed food. But – and there’s always a but – food banks also carry promise.

In Canada, those showing up to food banks are often migrants, Indigenous people, single mothers, and seniors. It’s no accident, as they are also the people who are most affected by institutionalized racism, sexism, and broken healthcare and welfare systems.

One of the ways by which the Black Panther party is most remembered is their free breakfast program: there, they provided food to underprivileged children every morning, while also handing out pamphlets, offering reading groups, and hosting workshops. Those most affected by racism in the U.S. were also the ones who most needed a free meal. The Black Panthers saw this and created the program as its primary mode of recruitment. This strategy was so effective that, not only did the U.S. government copy it soon after with its own free breakfast program at public schools, they were also called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” by J. Edgar Hoover, then-director of the FBI. The threat of revolution was quickly neutralized by the FBI through widespread persecution, arrest, and assassination of their leaders.

Like the free breakfast program, food banks have the potential to be revolutionary places where those most affected by society’s problems gather and find ways to fight against them. Food is the universal social glue, and the most impoverished, who are often the most isolated, need as much social glue as they can get.

“We’ve always strived to provide a festive ambiance. A more cooperative base as opposed to a more paternalistic, Dickensian atmosphere that makes people hesitate to come in.”

These places aren’t just theory, they exist. The Stop is a food bank turned community centre in Toronto. While they do hand out food, they also host community kitchens – many directed at migrants – programs for single mothers, a ‘good food’ market, a greenhouse, and many other activities. In doing so, they bring together those most affected by racism, ageism, and sexism, as well as those interested in farmers’ markets or urban agriculture.

“In eating with others,” said Nick Saul, the director of The Stop Community Food Centre, in a recent article in the Montreal Gazette, “You can build community and you can express your background and culture. It’s a good way to do community organizing, a good way to get at big issues.”

My own Masters research centres around a food bank in south-west Montreal, the Réseau d’Entraide de Verdun. There, food distribution is partnered with workshops, community kitchen programs, and an at-cost grocery store. The Réseau also tries to provide all their services in a dignified and inclusive manner. As one staff member told me, “We’ve always strived to provide a festive ambiance. A more cooperative base as opposed to a more paternalistic, Dickensian atmosphere that makes people hesitate to come in.”

What interests me about the Réseau is not just that they provide food to the needy and have diverse activities. Despite being a charity, which by law must refrain from being political, they show that politics can be done differently. They work with local political groups, providing them material support in the form of food. If any organization, such as the local Inuit centre, the women’s centre, and the organization Solidarity Across Borders, needs a meal cooked for an event, the Réseau can help them out. Likewise, they’ve partnered with local groups, establishing what they call a ‘broad front’ of neighbourhood solidarity, which, combined, has more power to challenge state policies than just one group acting by itself. They also work with regional networks, such as the Table de la Faim, to pressure the government to do something about rising hunger and inequality.

Activism should be inclusive and address people’s actual material needs. If we really want to change things, we need to go to the spaces where people already are, and work with them on their terms.

The Réseau, while being a charity and handing out food, challenges the state, advocates for better welfare, and helps support local community and activist groups with material resources. In short, they’re living proof that something like the free breakfast program is still possible, and still radical – not radical as in fanatical, but radical as in basic, essential, and far-reaching.

Why am I interested in food banks? In the long run, we need to shift from an economy predated on violence, dispossession, and over-extraction. To get there, some advocate degrowth or the solidarity economy, yet others prefer anarchism. Such economies wouldn’t be possible without places that provide essential resources to those most in need. I think some food banks – by offering those resources, helping to break isolation, and providing collective solutions to individualized problems – give a glimpse of the kinds of institutions we’d want in this new economy.

In the short run, it’s imperative that activism is accountable to the people who are most directly affected, and that we start working toward new ways of managing material resources; either locally, non-hierarchically, and toward access for all. Specifically, activism should be inclusive and address people’s actual material needs. If we really want to change things, we need to go to the spaces where people already are, and work with them on their terms.

As another staff member at the Réseau, who prefered to remain anonymous, recently told me, “In the last political demonstrations, we made food for other groups. Our people are not young and they might not see the point in demonstrating. However, they prefer making food for other people and that makes sense for them.” Protesting on the streets is not for everyone, but most people can cook together. Sharing meals doesn’t require knowing anyone beforehand. It also saves money and time.

It’s understandable that people who want a radical change in society would simply dismiss food banks as charities. But work has been done at some food banks that has challenged the status quo more strongly than food co-ops, infoshops, lobby groups, or even many NGOs. This is because they provide something that everyone needs – food – and do so in ways that are dignified, inclusive, and political.

That’s what food justice is: working with those most affected by an unjust food system, rather than creating spaces outside of it only accessible to the privileged.


A Bite of Food Justice is a column discussing inequity in the food system while critiquing contemporary ideals of sustainability. Aaron Vansintjan can be reached at foodjustice@mcgilldaily.com.

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